EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Atypical contracts

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Atypical contracts are generally defined as employment contracts that do not conform to a standard, open-ended and full-time contract. This can encompass many types of contract, including part-time, fixed-term, temporary, casual and seasonal. In 2010, Eurofound research examined ‘very atypical’ forms of contracting, such as part-time work (fewer than 10 hours a week), very short fixed-term contracts, zero-hours contracts and non-written contracts. The research found that the type of workers engaged in very atypical forms of work tend to be extremely heterogeneous, ranging from very low-skilled workers on seasonal contracts to highly skilled professionals on short, task-focused contracts.

There has been a growth in recent years in the number of workers on these types of contracts and it would appear that a number of adjustments of the rights and protection of workers are needed to adapt to these new forms of contracting. This is due to the fact that the majority of workers’ rights and protections have been built around so-called standard employment relationships. The main features of such relationships are the permanence of a contractual relationship between the worker and an employer, with rights and protection being developed along the way. The European Commission acknowledged this issue in its Green Paper on Modernising labour law to meet the challenges of the 21st century, issued in November 2006.

More recent research into precarious employment, commissioned by the European Parliament, also shows that there has been an increase in recent years in the prevalence of atypical contracts in the EU. Standard contracts only accounted for 59% of contracts in 2014, down from 62% in 2003. The study shows that there is also a gender dimension to atypical contracting: men are more likely than women to work on a full-time and permanent basis (65%, compared with 52%), and conversely, women are much more likely than men to work on a part-time basis. In addition, the lower the educational level and the lower the age of a worker, the likelihood of being employed on a standard contract decreases. Half of those aged between 15 and 24 work either part time, fewer than 20 hours per week, or on a temporary basis (fixed-term or on an apprenticeship or trainee contract). Some 64 % of those with higher levels of education work on a full-time permanent basis, compared with 48% of those with lower levels of education.

Eurofound’s research on new forms of employment, published in 2015, focused on emerging and increasing forms of atypical contracting, such as:

  • employee sharing – where an individual worker is jointly hired by a group of employers to meet the HR needs of various companies, resulting in permanent, full-time employment;
  • job sharing – where an employer hires two or more workers to jointly fill a specific job, combining two or more part-time jobs into one full-time position;
  • interim management  where highly skilled experts are hired temporarily for a specific project or to solve a specific problem and integrate external management capacities in the organisation;
  • casual work where an employer is not obliged to regularly provide work to the employee, but has the flexibility of calling them in on demand;
  • ICT-based mobile work  this enables workers to do their job from any place at any time, supported by modern technologies;
  • voucher-based work  whereby the employment relationship is based on payment for services, with a voucher purchased from an authorised organisation that covers both pay and social security contributions;
  • portfolio work  where a self-employed individual works for a large number of clients, carrying out small-scale jobs for each of them;
  • crowd employment  where an online platform matches employers and workers, often with larger tasks being split up and divided among a ‘virtual cloud’ of workers;
  • collaborative employment  where freelancers, the self-employed or micro enterprises cooperate in some way to overcome limitations of size and professional isolation.

The report notes that most of these atypical forms of contracting have the potential to contribute to labour market innovation and make it more attractive to both employers and a wider range of potential workers. However, it also highlights the fact that there is a danger of labour market segmentation, particularly from casual work and voucher-based work, if the result is a widespread acceptance of fragmented jobs that are inherently linked to low income and limited social protection. It advocates, therefore, the need for specific and tailor-made approaches to these forms of contracting, based on a joint understanding of the individual employment forms and national/cross-national exchanges of information and experiences.

See also: atypical work; casual worker; contract of employment; crowd employment; economically dependent worker; employee; fixed-term work; fragmentation of the labour force; ICT-based mobile work; new forms of employmenttelework; temporary agency work; undeclared work.

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